Horses are often described as flight animals,
however when a horse is faced with a potential threat he has not one, but four behavioural
options available. These four options are fiddling about, freezing, fleeing and fighting.
In this video we are going to principally focus on “fiddling about”. This category
includes both displacement behaviours and appeasement behaviours.
Displacement behaviours are normal behaviour such as self-grooming that occur in an abnormal
context and are useful indicator of anxiety. They are often displayed when a horse is conflicted
between two drives. For example, a horse that is thirsty may scratch his leg instead of
going to drink if a horse that he is scarred of is standing in front of the water. Or a
trick horse may snatch grass while doing a bow in an attempt to calm himself.
Appeasement behaviours are used to appease, to reduce or inhibit aggression and indicate
mild stress. Licking and empty chewing are both appeasement behaviours but unfortunately
are often misinterpreted as relaxation or thought processing. Averting gaze and showing
of the neck are also appeasement behaviours that can misinterpreted as the horse not paying
attention to the trainer when in fact the animal is trying to reduce aggression and
avoid conflict. Other appeasement signals include lateral ears, holding head low, slow
movement, curved approach rather than approaching directly, yawning and blinking.
To be a good horse trainer it is important to learn to spot these subtle changes in your
horse body language and to adjust the situation in order to limit your animal stress. Not
only this is important for the well-being of the animal but displacement and appeasement
behaviours are your chance to fix the problem before the horse has to resort to flight or
fight behaviours, which can lead to serious injuries.
Of course some of these behaviours can occur without the animal being stressed, for example
it is normal for a horse to yawn or scratch once in a while so you must look at the context
in which they occur and if they are accompany by other signals.
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